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7 Nutritional Guidelines for Vegetarians During Pregnancy

by Staci Marks on May 23, 2012

Vegetarians face many challenges during pregnancy, a period of increased nutritional need. For one, their diet might lack the optimal amount of protein, iron, and vitamin B12, which is found in meat. Another issue is that recommended intakes of vitamins and minerals are much higher, and pregnant women must have adequate weight gain, which may be hard to do on a vegan diet. Here are some other healthy guidelines for expecting vegetarians to ensure proper nutrition.

  1. Adequate Weight Gain

    Vegans may begin pregnancy a bit underweight, gaining weight very slowly throughout the following nine months. It may be beneficial for vegans to eat foods higher in fat and lower in bulk to add on some pounds. Drinking extra calories (milk shakes, soy yogurts, or eating more tofu) are healthy ways of increasing your calorie intake. The Vegetarian Resource Group advises a general weight gain for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and a pound a week in the second and third trimesters. For underweight vegetarian women, though, expect to try to gain 15 to 25 pounds over the course of your pregnancy (while maintaining a steady rate of weight gain). Eating foods like nuts, dried fruits, soy, bean products, and other concentrated sources of calories may be helpful in reaching your desired weight goal.

  2. Vegan Multi-Vitamin Supplements

    According to the Queensland Health Dietitian/Nutritionists, folic acid is needed early in pregnancy (first trimester). Folic acid is needed for the healthy development and growth of your baby, and also helps prevent abnormalities like spina bifida. Recently, folic acid has also been connected with a type of birth defect called neural tube defect; studies report that women who gave birth to infants with neural tube defects had significantly lower intakes of folate than other women, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group. Expecting vegan mothers should also consider taking multivitamins or general pre-natal pills, which are loaded with more than 21 essential vitamins, minerals, and extra B12, depending on certain brands. The Livestrong Foundation’s newsletter recommends the Veganlife Multivitamin, which should be taken three times a day, is allergen-free, and can be purchased with or without iron.

  3. Boost Iron Levels

    Iron is a necessary nutrient that aids in the development of the fetus and placenta. Taking specific iron supplements may be beneficial, since iron deficiency anemia is not uncommon during pregnancy and affects vegans and non-vegans equally. Good sources of additional dietary iron can be found in cereals, wholemeal breads, dried fruits, nuts, and dark green vegetables. The Vegetarian Resource Group recommends iron supplements of 30 milligrams daily during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters, taken in between meals to maximize absorption.

  4. Make Your Calories Count

    Try to stick to an all-natural diet, and avoid highly processed foods, sweets, or salty foods. Even for vegetarians, calorie intake needs to increase only modestly during pregnancy. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, no additional calories are needed. In the second trimester, an extra 340 calories are recommended, and an additional 452 calories are needed per day in the third trimester. It’s important to choose a well-balanced meal not high in fats or sugars or excessive in calories.

  5. Get Enough Protein

    Getting enough protein during pregnancy can be quite a challenge, especially for vegetarians. The American College of Nurse-Midwives recommends daily consumption of 71 grams of complete proteins, although protein requirements may vary. There are both complete and incomplete protein food sources: the complete proteins are found in milk-based dairy products (yogurt, cheese, eggs, and milk) and soy products (tofu, soy milk, and soybeans). Most vegetarians are consuming incomplete proteins (found in plant-based foods like legumes and grains). It is especially important for vegetarians to have a balance of complete and incomplete proteins that contain essential amino acids.

  6. Maintain Adequate Intake of Calcium

    In the past, women have been urged by their doctors to substantially increase their consumption of calcium-rich foods during pregnancy. Since calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, mothers should consume enough calcium to provide for the growing fetus, without compromising her own bone density. Current research from The Institute of Medicine concludes that adequate calcium intake prior to pregnancy is adequate for the growth of healthy bones, and dietary calcium does not need to be increased during pregnancy. The recommended amount of daily calcium is 1,000 grams for women age 19 and older, and increased to 1,300 mg for pregnant adolescents, according to The American Dietetic Association. Look for calcium-fortified products, like orange juice and rice milks. Other common calcium-rich foods are kale, collard greens, turnips, broccoli, and tofu.

  7. Keep Up Your Supply of Vitamin B12

    It’s common for vegans to not get enough vitamin B12, since it is a nutrient found primarily in animal foods. However, it is a vital nutrient for the developing fetus (all cells that synthesize DNA rely on vitamin B12.) Luckily, there are vitamin B12-infused cereals and prenatal vitamins with only B12. Choose at least one source of B12 a day: the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends a daily vitamin B12 allowance of 2.6 mcg. A deficiency in this nutrient can cause weakness, weight loss, dementia, depression, and in severe cases, brain damage, according to The Livestrong Foundation.

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